Following Hatari's controversial performance at Eurovision in Israel, the Icelandic BDSM band joined forces with Palestinian artist Bashar Murad, using music to advocate for Palestinian rights.

In recent years, artists including Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and Madonna have sparked controversy by deciding to perform—or not to perform—in Israel. Other artists, such as Acid Arab and Nicolas Jaar, went to Israel, but only played in Palestinian venues. This heightened scrutiny is largely thanks to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement—known as BDS—which pressures artists to cancel concerts in Israel and Israeli settlements. So at the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv earlier this year—Madonna was one of the performers—the usually festive atmosphere was unsurprisingly tinged with politics too.

The Eurovision Song Contest was founded in the 1950s, when a war-torn Europe was rebuilding itself and the European Broadcast Union was seeking to bring together European countries around a light entertainment programme. The contest gave a career boost to already-famous artists like ABBA and Celine Dion, and catapulted lesser-known talents, including Israel’s Dana International, to long-lasting international success.

When anti-capitalist, BDSM-inspired Icelandic band Hatari (Klemens Hannigan, Matthías Haraldsson, and Einar Stefánsson) entered the competition in Tel Aviv, the group revealed it would use its platform to support Palestinian liberation. Hatari’s performance “Hatrið mun sigra” (“Hate will prevail”) was an act portraying what would happen in a hate-filled Europe without unity. The band made a statement during the show by holding up banners, bearing the Palestinian flag, during the counting of the votes at the Eurovision Grand Final—which led to a lot of controversy as well as Iceland potentially being banned from entering Eurovision in 2020.

In protest of Eurovision taking place in Israel, activists organized an alternative concert called Globalvision, which took place in Bethlehem on the same night as the large-scale affair it was criticizing. Bashar Murad, a 26-year-old queer artist living in East Jerusalem, used his Globalvision performance to speak out about Israel’s pinkwashing agenda and human rights violations. Bashar subsequently teamed up with Hatari to raise awareness of the situation in Palestine outside the Eurovision context.

Hatari has continued to advocate for Palestinian rights with the recent music video “Klefi / Samed (صامد)”—or “Chamber/Steadfast”—which was filmed with Bashar in Palestine’s Jericho desert. I had a Skype session with Bashar Murad, Matthías Haraldsson, and Klemens Hannigan to discuss the importance of their collaboration, their plans for the future, and music as a tool for activism.

Bo Hanna—Where is the drummer, Einar Stefánsson?

Matthias Haraldsson—He’s in his basement.

Bo—Sure… How did you meet Bashar?

Klemens Hannigan—Before we won the national Icelandic Eurovision contest [Söngvakeppnin], we reached out to Palestinian artists to exchange thoughts. We started discussing politics, art, and our day-to-day reality with Bashar via Skype and felt like there was an instant connection between us. We did not want to perform in Israel without making responsible use of the platform that comes with participating in this contest.

Bashar—It was clear to me that we shared the same values of peace, love, and justice. It’s amazing that I can reach people that have no clue about the struggles in my region by collaborating with Hatari.

Matthías—Even though our band is openly anti-capitalist, we were not accustomed to taking a stance on specific political matters like this. While working with Bashar we realized that, for an artist who actually lives within occupied territory, having a political side to your art means being very clear about where you stand. I think we enjoyed the privilege, speaking in broader terms, in the past, while Bashar really has to fight for a change in his everyday life.

“The lyrics I wrote [on ‘KLEFI / SAMED (صامد)’] reflect on the situation of the Palestinian people and their struggles, a reality that includes checkpoints, constant military presence, illegal settlements and walls.”

Bo—How does being Icelandic play a role in this?

Matthías—Iceland was one of the first Western European countries to recognize the independence of Palestine. We are still one of the few countries in Western Europe that do so. Because we didn’t want to be silenced by Eurovision, we decided to wave the Palestinian banners during the live voting, which led to a lot of commotion and a potential ban. Our prime minister even spoke about the incident and reminded the people of Iceland that we were using our freedom of speech to wave the flag of Palestine; a sovereign and recognized country.

Bo—The Netherlands won the contest this year. The winner, Duncan Laurence, and Madonna both said that ‘music should always come first.’ How do you feel about that?

Bashar—As an artist and musician, I know that music is never ‘just’ music. It’s important for the audience to know with what intention songs are written and what they stand for. People were saying that artists were ruining the Eurovision Song Contest by being too political, but the truth is that the Eurovision Song Contest is a political festival in itself.

Matthías—Yeah, in fact, each contestant is making a political statement by deciding to take part. Everything they perform and say is, in our view, a political statement made in the name of their country.

Bashar—Exactly. Eurovision was created after World War II to increase a sense of unity in Europe. The votings during the semi-finals and final are still highly political; a lot of countries vote for other countries based on their political relations, for example. Also, this year’s edition was held in Tel Aviv, which made performing there a political choice; how can you party there knowing that the indigenous population is being repressed and excluded? Madonna performed during the final and made a small statement by showing the Palestinian flag in her performance, but Hatari totally overshadowed her with a strong and clear message during the entire festival.

Klemens—Actually, a lot of contestants came with various political statements this year. The Norwegians, for example, waved the flag of the Sami people [a minority in Norway] so why is waving a flag of a country that we recognize forbidden?

“You hear things like, ‘Tel Aviv is the gay capital of the Middle East,’ and forget about other human rights violations.”

Bo—The Eurovision organization was not happy with what you did though. How is that going?

Klemens—From what I have heard, Iceland won’t be shut out from the competition next year. It would actually be beneficial if [the organization] did that, because it would keep the discussion going about the violation of human rights by the Israeli government. I think they are not paying attention to our protest because it would overshadow the next Eurovision Song Contest.

Matthías—Nothing is confirmed yet, not that we know of, but it would definitely not be a smart move to punish Iceland. It would be hypocritical; we also held the trans flag and rainbow flag, which are political as well, so you cannot pick and choose like that and only think of what is fitting your image.

Klemens—Yeah, it is absurd that we broke the rules by waving a flag that is recognized by the United Nations and our own country. Also, our actions weren’t aggressive at all—peaceful protest should never be punished.

Bashar—Eurovision only wants statements that fit its own agenda and image. There is a list of banned flags. The Palestinian flag is actually on that list beside flags like the ISIS flag… I also wanted to raise the point that Israel is using Eurovision to benefit their pinkwashing and artwashing agenda. Israel hosting Eurovision, which has a big LGBTQ+ audience, is a good way to distract the world from the human rights violations that they are currently committing.

Matthías—When we first met Bashar, we realized that we were naive about Israel’s agenda considering pinkwashing. You hear things like, ‘Tel Aviv is the gay capital of the Middle East,’ and forget about other human rights violations. People also argue that we wouldn’t be safe in Palestine, but we went there on several occasions, recorded the music video in Palestine, collaborated with Palestinians, and everyone was very open to our message and methods.

“We [share] the same values of peace, love, and justice. It’s amazing that I can reach people that have no clue about the struggles in my region by collaborating with Hatari.”

Bo—Can you tell me more about the music video ‘KLEFI / SAMED (صامد)’ you made together?

Klemens—The lyrics that we [Hatari] wrote had a different meaning before Bashar joined the track, because we were working on it already a few months before we met him. When we got in touch with Bashar we sent him a few demo tracks we had been working on and he chose the track ‘KLEFI,’ which translates to ‘Chamber.’ He wrote his lyrics in Arabic and we put it together on the track. Two different worlds come together and emerge in a beautiful way, I think.

Bashar—The part I wrote is a response to their track and the conversation we had on Skype. The lyrics I wrote reflect on the situation of the Palestinian people and their struggles, a reality that includes checkpoints, constant military presence, illegal settlements and walls. ‘Samed’ means ‘steadfast’ in Arabic, referring to the steadfastness of the Palestinian people.

Klemens—Our lyrics are about isolation and the various echo chambers we find ourselves trapped within. A thought on isolation versus solidarity, a rant about people angrily shaking their fists, each in their own direction, without a sense of unity.

Bo—How have the reactions been so far?

Bashar—A lot of people in the Arab world are proud of our recent collaboration. They cannot wait for Hatari to perform over here! Unfortunately, the Arab media hasn’t really covered our collaboration yet, but there is a lot of local support on social media.

Matthías—The general response in Iceland has been really great so far. I think we created a broad sense of support and agreement on non-violent protest and supporting the Palestinian cause in Iceland and globally.